President Donald Trump's announcement last week that he would terminate U.S. membership in the World Health Organization is but the latest in a long list of decisions he has made to walk away from international institutions and agreements.
From his first days in office, Trump has maintained that putting America first meant dumping trade accords, terminating arms control treaties and ending membership in a range of United Nations agencies. He often promised to deliver better agreements with more favorable terms, but he's generally failed to do so. Far from serving core American interests, his withdrawal decisions have left America worse off.
Trade tops Trump's agenda, and his first action as president was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact among Pacific nations who together accounted for 40% of world trade. Trump maintained that he would negotiate separate bilateral agreements with the other parties, but none of these could be as comprehensive as TPP nor serve as the economic counterweight to China that the 12-nation pact was designed to be.
When it came to other trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and a separate pact with South Korea, Trump used the threat of withdrawal and imposition of tariffs to negotiate new terms. While he succeeded in both instances, it's debatable how much of an improvement the new agreements are over the old. Much of the new NAFTA, for example, incorporates provisions that had been negotiated as part of the much-derided TPP. And analyses by the International Monetary Fund and U.S. International Trade Commission suggest that the new pact will have no or even negative impact on economic growth.
Trump's antagonism to international organizations and agreements extends to others charged with addressing critical global challenges. He withdrew from the Paris climate accord and, while promising to negotiate a better deal, has reversed numerous efforts by previous administrations to curtail the emissions of heat-trapping gases in the U.S. He walked out of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, withdrew from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and ended funding for the U.N. agency supporting Palestinian refugees. All this before terminating U.S. membership in the WHO.
Not only have these steps weakened critical global efforts to address climate change, human rights abuses, refugees and global health, they also have opened the way for China to seek to lead in all these areas. No sooner had Washington announced it would cut funding to the WHO, when Beijing stepped in promising more resources. As one senior U.N. diplomat told me recently, "Every time the United States walks away from the U.N., China steps in with more money and people."
Nowhere has the damage of Trump's withdrawal strategy been greater than in the area of arms control. In 2018, he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which effectively capped Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons for more than a decade. Trump promised to find a "real, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat," but two years on Iran has abandoned many of the original restraints and halved the time it needs to get the bomb.
Trump also has dismantled much of the nuclear arms control edifice built up with Moscow over the past 50 years. In 2019, he withdrew from the Reagan-era agreement eliminating medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, and last month he announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, a 30-nation measure to enhance transparency throughout Europe. Most alarming, he appears to favor letting the last remaining nuclear agreement with Russia, the 2010 New START treaty, expire early next year.
Instead of honoring existing treaties, the Trump administration apparently believes it can better agreements through a new arms race. "We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion," Trump's special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, said last month, in an apparent attempt to convince Moscow and Beijing to join new negotiations.
The steady march away from international institutions and agreements over the past three years is coming at a growing cost. High among these is the fact that America's allies are increasingly turning away from Washington. On trade, they have negotiated new agreements among themselves, leaving the U.S. on the outside looking in. On global challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, allied capitals are ignoring Washington, which they increasingly see as irrelevant. And on arms control, they try to stick with the agreements Washington is abandoning.
All of this came to a head last week when Angela Merkel, infuriated by Trump's decision to walk out of the WHO and fed up with his unilateralism, said she would not attend the G-7 meeting Trump had planned to host in person this month. For the German chancellor, as for an increasing number of world leaders, meeting with the U.S. president isn't what it used to be.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
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